Plain packaging dissent – why it didn’t happen in Australia

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As FreedomWatch reported last week, the United Kingdom has now followed Australia’s lead by introducing mandatory plain packaging.

This is a victory for the Nanny State, but the legislation’s passage served to highlight one of the problems with Australian democracy: A culture of party discipline is strangling parliamentarians’ ability to represent their constituents and vote for what they believe is right.

Unlike in Australia—where plain packaging passed with bipartisan support—the UK legislation was put to a conscience vote. It was opposed by 113 MPs, 104 of which were Conservatives—accounting for more than one third of the prime minister’s party.

Such a situation is simply unimaginable in Australia.

Australian politics is characterised by strong political parties that place tremendous emphasis on party discipline and conformity.

Conscience votes, on the rare occasions they are granted, usually involve issues of profound moral and religious significance. During the Howard government, for example, 5 out of the 6 conscience votes involved euthanasia, abortion, stem cell research, and cloning. The only exception was the legislation for the republic referendum in 1999.

At all other times Australian politicians are expected to toe the party line. Party unity is seen as paramount.

In contrast, the UK has a political culture that is far more accustomed to dissent. Even without the cover of a conscience vote, backbenchers in the UK are willing to defy party leadership and ‘cross the floor’. One such revolt occurred in 2011, when 81 Conservatives, 19 Labour, and 1 Liberal-Democrat defied their party leadership to vote in favour of a bill calling for a referendum on UK membership of the EU.

A revolt like this is simply unheard of in Australia, at least in recent times. The reasons for this are twofold:

  1. Labor’s system of binding caucuses has made ‘crossing the floor’ effectively impossible for all members of the ALP, and this has had a corollary effect on the Coalition. By making dissent rare, the Labor party has made all political parties more cautious about party unity. As a result, all major parties now heed the mantra that ‘disunity is death’.
  2. The second major cause of Australia’s party discipline is the size of the parliament. There are a total of 226 MPs and Senators in the Australian parliament, 85 are part of the government or opposition front benches. This means that more than a third of the parliament is part of the current or shadow executive and is obligated to support party policy.

With 650 MPs, the House of Commons’ backbench is able to provide strength in numbers when backbench revolt occurs. It also means that the opposition of one MP is of far less of a sign of disunity.

This stronger backbench, not constrained by binding caucuses, is able to serve their constituents and maintain the legislature’s role as a check on the executive.

The result of these factors for Australia is a political culture that emphasises party unity and discourages—and even punishes—dissent.

This rigid party unity is bad for Australian democracy. It places party loyalty over the interests of the voters and discourages MPs from voting for what they think is right.

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